A Review of Beth Kephart’s We Are the Words, the Master Memoir Class
January 5, 2022 § 5 Comments
By Marcia Meier
Beth Kephart’s latest book on writing, We Are the Words, the Master Memoir Class (Juncture Workshops, 2021), is a series of essays that seek to illuminate what memoir is, how to write it, and how to become more aware of yourself and your goals as a writer. Many of these essays previously appeared in Literary Hub, CRAFT, Ploughshares, Brevity, Publisher’s Weekly, Hippocampus, Entropy, and other literary magazines.
In section one, The Stuff of Craft, Kephart provides instructions on the various forms of memoir and essay writing, including numerous prompts to get writers going. There are two sections focused on the writer herself: The Self-aware Writer, and The Writers’ Life, and a fourth section called Ideas on Form, where Kephart analyzes several essay forms and illustrates approaches employed by writers who have mastered the essay.
Much of Kephart’s advice can be found in other treatises on essay writing, but her questions —what she calls “question cascades”—prompts, and exercises make this book exceptional. This book would be especially helpful to writers who are new to memoir, essay writing, or both.
The question cascade invites writers to consider not just a broader question, like “What do you know about your childhood wardrobe?” but probes deeper with questions like:
- Did you get all the hand-me-downs?
- Were your sleeves always too long?
- Were your hems always too short?
- Were your fabrics full of itch?
- Did your zippers break?
- Did your mittens match?
- Were your clothes the cause of pride, or were they the cause of confusion?
These are the kinds of deep, probing questions that help writers get to the heart of the essay or memoir. I’ve worked with memoirists for many years as a coach and book editor, and these sections of the book stand out as useful and thought-provoking tools/prompts for any writer.
In the chapter Matters of Voice, Kephart deftly discusses style, something that is often nebulous and ungraspable. Many writers have no idea what style is or how their own style influences their writing. She’s spot on with this advice:
Literary style is like a fingerprint. Every writer has her own. A thing for big words or small ones, long sentences or short ones, nervous persuasions or booming declarations or first-person hush. Style is punctuation and it is white space, titled chapters versus numbered ones, footnotes or dreamscapes, curvy descriptions instead of snapping dialogue. If plot is what happened, style is why what happened matters and what music was playing throughout the happening.
As an extra benefit, Kephart offers examples of essays/memoirs to illustrate her points and in the process gives readers a compendium of memoirs to add to their TBR list (if they haven’t read them yet). Kephart gives us Road Song, by Natalie Kusz, which I read in graduate school and made the basis of a major paper on the influence of mothers when children suffer severe trauma. “Road Song contains everything I believe memoir should stand for—something I must have intuited all those years ago,” she writes. “It is the better angel of the memoir breed, an antidote to wallow, a clear-eyed tenderness, a deeply layered text built of an entire family’s reminiscence, proof of the universal in the personal.” I agree.
Kephart offers examples from Jordan Kinser’s Thin Places, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Heather Christle’s The Crying Book, Mark Doty, Paul Lisicky, Claudia Rankine, Yiyun Li, Margaret Renkl and many others, using specific passages with insightful commentary. One could build a formidable library of memoir and essay collections from her suggestions alone.
Ultimately, We Are the Words is indeed a master memoir class, offering both examples and advice for writers attempting what is one of the most difficult forms to execute. You can’t go wrong picking up this latest offering from Beth Kephart. It is a fitting follow to her March 2021 release of her lovely collection of essays, wife/daughter/self.
Marcia Meier is the author of six nonfiction books, including her most recent award-winning book, Face, A Memoir, released by Saddle Road Press in January 2021